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Fresh off the boat in Hong Kong

Since moving to Hong Kong in October, I have been frequently asked by friends from my hometown of Sichuan how I feel about locals’ “discrimination against mainlanders”. I told them I haven’t experienced out-right discrimination.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 9:58am

Since moving to Hong Kong in October, I have been frequently asked by friends from my hometown of Sichuan how I feel about locals’ “discrimination against mainlanders”.

I told them I haven’t experienced out-right discrimination.

Most Hongkongers I meet are friendly. Many have generously offered me help.

One of them is my friend Jimmy. I had met him only once before, a few months back in Sichuan while was on a business trip. Once I moved here, he and his girlfriend, both Hong Kong locals, volunteered to escort me on exhausting flat-hunting trips despite their busy schedules.

“I wanted to make sure my Putonghua-speaking friend gets a decent deal,” he said.

As soon as I settled down, my local friends, whom I had known through work overseas, offered to take me out, show me the city and advise me on adapting to a new life in Hong Kong.

One of my colleagues, after finding out my penchant for spicy cuisines, insisted on walking me to an authentic Sichuan restaurant near work.

“I hope this will make your life in Hong Kong more tolerable,” she said.

I also received acts of kindness from strangers.

A lady I sat next to on a tram car one day started speaking to me about the benefits of riding the tram – after hearing my complaint about how slow the car was going.

“We need to slow down in life and appreciate what’s out there,” she said in her not-so-perfect Putonghua. “It’s not always about speed.”

Her meaningful remarks shed new light on my understanding of Hong Kong, which is best-known for its efficiency and speed.

But I don’t mean to paint a completely rosy picture here. I admit there were moments when I sensed negative sentiments towards mainlanders.

One evening I was eating in a small restaurant in Wan Chai when several guys started shouting angrily in Cantonese at two mainland women nearby. It turned out the waiter had mistakenly served to the women dishes ordered by locals from another table.

And this apparently infuriated their friends, who continued to throw angry stares at the women after the dishes were withdrawn, even though it was obviously the waiter’s fault.

The women looked frightened and clueless. They probably had no idea what they did wrong – except for having spoken Putonghua.

It was hard to tell if it’s discrimination or simple rudeness. But thinking about what happened there still bothers me.

If one could get into trouble for merely speaking Putonghua in Hong Kong, then something is seriously wrong.

What triggered that discontent?

My sister, while visiting Hong Kong’s Disneyland with her daughter, confronted her taxi driver with the same question.

“We don’t dislike mainlanders,” the driver said. “We used to feel superior, but now we feel the opposite.”

“The Hong Kong dollar used to be more valuable,” he said. “And it used to be the Hongkongers who go on spending binges.”

“I don’t go on spending binges in Hong Kong,” said my sister. “But it’s natural for people to spend more lavishly on vacations.”

“And I spend my hard-earned money too,” she said. “Not corrupt money like Hong Kong newspapers claim.”

The man went on to tell my sister more about his family. He said his son had recently found work and moved out to live in a subdivided unit. But the driver has to continue working to pay loans and support his family.

The conversation helped to clear some of the doubts and misunderstandings for both. And on top of that, they became friends. For once, they were humans instead of a “mainlander” and “Hongkonger”.

I think we need more conversations like this. We don’t need more biased newspaper reports or finger-pointing politicians who pit us against each other by blaming every Hong Kong problem on mainlanders, or vice versa.

Without providing insights or solutions, those culprits will only turn negative sentiment into discrimination, and soon, hatred.